Know the difference between memoir, autobiography and biography: all about you

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It’s rather simple, but people do get them confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir. Because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining.

Memoir: A story written with the word I. As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. Out of Africa is about a coffee farm in Africa. My Life in France by Julia Child is as much about the character of postwar France and living the life of a US State Department employee’s bride, plus the rigors of publishing a first book. A memoir doesn’t contain everything that happened in your life—only selected events that relate to your theme. A theme like, “Even when you discover who they really are, how can you save your loved ones?”

Autobiography: A story all about you, but with everything that’s interesting included, in chronological order. Drama is important because we hear this tale in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. But it was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. They do all contribute to his theme, but it all had to be true. Autobiographies often appear as stories of the lives of celebrities, but are often ghost-written. We’re led to believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but the ghosts are channeling that voice.

Biography: A complete examination and telling of the life of someone who is not the author. Covers all significant events of the person’s life, not just those related to a theme. Think reporting, with verve and style, at its best. The voice of the writer emerges here, just like in the last two forms. But at no point does the reader live the events in a biography as if they were their own. Not even an autobiography can do that — because it’s basically a self-biography.

Here’s some good news. Memoir demands drama, the very thing that drives people to read fiction. But a memoirist — or as I like to call them, memoiristas, because their writing should become daring — they work with what they’ve experienced or see first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly, however. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page, or your laptop screen. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you could prove doesn’t mean you cannot start. You begin with a disclaimer that your story will contain changes to character names, compressed events, even a warning that what you’ll read doesn’t portray actual events.

It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after, the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection — that’s what drives us to read memoirs. Here’s the boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Author’s note:

This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, character combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.

That, dear writer, is license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story.

3 Steps to Calculate Showing and Telling

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scene-structure bickhamA writing student of mine has asked more than once in class, “I am looking for a guideline on scene, to sequel, to narrative for my writing.” Whether it’s creative non-fiction (like a memoir), or a short story or even a novel, there are no magic formulas as in screenwriting. Writing movies can be as rigid as you’d like to follow, with expected major plot points coming at 30 pages, and again at 60. The whole thing needs to be written between 90 and 120 pages.

But if you’re working outside the realm of writing movies — and screenplays can be a powerful experience to teach story structure — you’ve got to decide for yourself what’s effective for these ratios. You have a key reader look at your mix for a chapter, or a workshop group. You read it aloud to yourself.

The mix? You can single-space it printed, then color-code with a highlighter. Blue for narrative — the telling or prelude or exposition. Yellow for dialogue and scene — where two or more people try to solve a problem, or a person struggles to accomplish a goal.

Then green for what Jack Bickham calls sequel. In his fine textbook Scene & Structure, Bickham describes sequel as the writing

…that begins for your viewpoint character the moment a scene ends. Just struck by a new, unanticipated but logical disaster, he is plunged into a period of sheer emotion, followed sooner or later by a period of thought — which sooner or later results in the formation of a new, goal-oriented decision, which in turn results in some action toward the new goal just selected.

Emotion to thought, then onward to new action. Bickham goes on to point out that once you have the action selected, you add a character or a force to oppose it. You get conflict. We crave conflict as readers. And so you’re now into the next scene. (It’s Chapter 7, Linking Your Scenes, in Bickham’s essential book.) More

Time changes stories

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There may be times when stepping back for awhile from a story or novel can provide a deeper understanding of what is vital to the tale. Up on the Web site for the literary journal Glimmer Train, the writer Erica Johnson Debeljak talks about writing her memoir twice, 10 years apart, first as journalism and much later as a novelization.

An honest writer of either fiction or nonfiction has to admit that the treatment of characters and situations — what is left in and what is left out — ultimately serves the meaning of the work, and that meaning can change over time. In other words, there is content (lived experience, impressions, imagination) and there is form (genre, story shape, the flow of words and sentences on the page), and the process of a writer funneling content into form will virtually always produce a different product depending on perspective and what meaning is being pushed to the fore at any given time.

She goes on to say this isn’t a viewpoint that non-fiction writers will embrace easily. But she “made changes in chronology and cold hard facts” while creating the memoir Forbidden Bread, the second life of her story.

More than a few writers in our workshops have worked on fiction based in life experience, or even a novelized memoir. Letting time elapse between drafts might help you if you’re working on such a story.